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Dentistry professor helps identify MIA veteran

A School of Dentistry forensic dentist has played a major role in bringing closure to a family whose son had been listed as "missing in action" from the Vietnam War for more than 34 years.

Dr. Jack Gobetti, a professor of dentistry and forensic dentist, was able to positively identify the serviceman after examining two teeth that were given to him in August. Gobetti was asked to help with the identification after a forensic molecular anthropologist, who performed a DNA analysis on the first tooth, saw an article about Gobetti's work in the July 22 issue of The University Record, and then asked him to confirm identification based on the second tooth.

Because teeth are the hardest substance in a body, lasting longer than bones or other tissues, they're ideal for making a positive identification. "Teeth can be susceptible to tooth decay, periodontal diseases or other factors. But once an individual dies, the forces of destruction to teeth don't exist, so they provide an excellent, stable and reliable means to identify someone," Gobetti says.

Several months earlier, the Vietnamese government gave the family, who did not wish to be identified, partial remains of the serviceman—a piece of a leg bone and a tooth with bridgework attached to it. After the remains were flown to Hawaii and positively identified, a member of the serviceman's family several months later flew to the grave site in Vietnam where additional remains were found. The family member uncovered a second tooth, a molar, and gave it to the forensic anthropologist for additional DNA testing. Because the results of the DNA test were not conclusive on the second tooth, Gobetti was contacted to help reconfirm the identification of the serviceman.

Gobetti says that after he was given the molar, he made notes about its unique characteristics so as not to influence his ultimate conclusion. "I was positive it was a molar from a Caucasian because there are differences in tooth structure among different ethnic groups," he says. In addition, American dentistry differs from other countries. Gobetti says the work that was performed on the serviceman's tooth was identical to the kind of bridgework that was done during the 1960s. On the molar, he says, the procedures used on this tooth were identical to the procedures that were performed on patients in the United States during that time. "So this confirmed, at least in my mind, that I was on the right track," he says.

After making his notes, Gobetti compared his observations to the serviceman's military dental records. It was a perfect match for both teeth.

"This is one example of how dentists provide an invaluable service to the public, especially those who have lost loved ones. I was glad to help," Gobetti says. "The family has been very gracious and cooperative, and I was happy, in some way, to help them achieve closure." Gobetti also says he wanted to honor the family's request for privacy by not disclosing any information about the serviceman including name, branch of service or hometown.

For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit http://www.dent.umich.edu.

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